As someone who has witnessed a fair few solstices at the ancient English site of Stonehenge, I was intrigued to hear that New Zealand also has its own stone circle situated in the back-country of Carterton.
Arriving at the top of an isolated hillside on a cold and windy winter solstice day, a wooden sign proudly announces visitors to “Stonehenge Aotearoa”.
As one of the designers and directors of this modern-day Stonehenge monument, Richard Hall is a repository knowledge about why neolithic hunter-gatherers spent so much time and effort to create these massive edifices.
Hall’s first introduction to the “stones” was as a boy: “We used to live near London and used to get to Stonehenge, and sit and have a breakfast sitting on the stones. Then it was just an ancient monument.”
Arriving in New Zealand half a century ago, Richard studied and then taught astronomy, and his interest in the ambition and meaning of the stone circles deepened.
Majority funded by the Royal Society and Phoenix Astronomical Society, the construction of an adapted modern-day version of Stonehenge was started in 2005. Its purpose was to create a full-size working model that showed the precise movement of the sun and stars, which were so important to ancient societies and their survival.
“This is like a stone age computer,” Hall says.
“The stones actually portray exactly when certain events are going to be occurring. You can tell the time and the day of the solstices and equinoxes.”
Like the original Stonehenge, this stone circle is 30 metres in diameter, with 24 three metre high stones, capped with lintels that span the tops of the upright stones. It’s a perfect arena for accurately viewing the solstice and other astronomical events.
“In a sense, the sun moves in an arc across the sky, moving backwards and forwards and that’s what the stone circle shows us – how that big clock works,” Hall says.
“There’s an enormous amount of information if you know how to decode it.”
While the original Stonehenge took around 4000 years to construct, a team of volunteers ingeniously built the Aotearoa stone circle in just three years on reinforced concrete foundations.
It has a wooden frame that is covered with concrete board, then wired, battened, screwed and hand tightened, and finally sprayed with concrete.
Like its prehistoric predecessor, its construction wasn’t without its challenges.
“Each of these stones was a ton each and, because no one had built one of these for a long period of time, if we had an engineering problem we would have to stop, have a cup of coffee, and work it out,” Hall says.
Unlike our modern, technologically networked world, with instant information at a fingertip, Stonehenge Aotearoa gives us a glimpse of what ancient technology looked like and how it was used.
“From a very early stage, people were using the stars, because it was the attempts of our ancestors to understand the complex world they were living in and to absolutely be able to foretell what was going to happen. This knowledge was a matter of life and death,” Hall says.
For anyone who is keen to learn how our species managed to work out how to tell the time and accurately track the passing of the seasons without the use of wristwatches and smartphones, Stonehenge Aotearoa is at hand – and delivers on the promise of the sign at its entrance.
“Take a tour into the past and discover the secrets of lost civilisations.”